Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Edward Norton, Alfre Woodard, John Mahoney, Maura Tierney, Andre Braugher
Opened: April 3, 1996 | Rated: R
Surprisingly, Richard Gere is in a good movie.
"Primal Fear," which opened Wednesday, is a courtroom drama about a smug, media-hungry lawyer who defends an alter boy accused of murdering the archbishop of Chicago.
Driven by crime drama cliches like sexual tension between defense lawyer and prosecutor, writer Steve Shagan's script manages to take these common themes, tweak them slightly and send them off in unexpected directions.
Better yet, mundane trial standards like opening statements and cross examinations, scenes that Hollywood hasn't done anything fresh with in years, in "Primal Fear" are edited in a point-counterpoint fashion. The legal wrangling of Gere and Laura Linney ("Congo"), as the prosecutor, are edited together almost like a lover's quarrel.
The effect is a much faster pace to the courtroom action, a more frenzied sense of tension between the lawyers and the thought "If only real trials were this interesting" racing through the audience.
The characters are recognizable but tweaked as well. Gere plays Martin Vail, a savy defense attorney who, smelling free publicity, speeds to the city jail in his Mercedes as soon as he sees the breaking news about the blood-soaked alter boy arrested while fleeing the scene of the archbishop's grusome murder.
The consummate legal shark, Vail explains to his staff that he doesn't care if his client is innocence, only that he appears innocence. The consummate narcissist, he plays hard-to-get for a magazine reporter writing a feature on him then asks, "This is a cover story, right?"
But Gere gives Vail a charming, well-spoken air that endears him to the audience despite his hubris and his belief that his very presence assures acquittal for his client.
Linney, who is an extrodiary actress, holds her own against Gere, showing a vulnerability to his advances in private, but roughing him up as best she can in the courtroom.
The character's vulnerability is written a bit heavy, leaving one to wonder why this sweet young thing was tapped to prosecute such an important case. But Linney convincingly builds her character's confidence as the movie progresses.
This kind of duality of character is a theme throughout "Primal Fear." The upstanding archbishop is revealed to have been sexually abusing the defendant (another cliche somehow altered enough to forgive it's use), and the defendant turns out to be quite two-faced himself.
Played expertly by newcomer Edward Norton, when emotionally cornered the seemingly unsure and nervous alter boy becomes isn't at all what Vail and a defense psychologist (Frances McDormand, "Fargo") expect -- and it changes the course of their strategy. Norton is so startlingly brilliant in the role, which demands as much of him as any two actors could manage, and he makes it look natural.
The toying with the expected makes "Primal Fear" feel like fresh material. It is an impressive, character-driven film with only one major disappointment -- the filmmakers almost spoil an important scene with an insultingly over-simplified twist. As if the they thought they might lose the audience, we are very slowly taken back over the surprise with painful, soap-opera dialogue to make sure nobody missed the obvious.
Also in the film are Alfre Woodard, and television vererans John Mahoney ("Fraiser"), Maura Tierney ("Newsradio") and Andre Braugher ("Homicide"), all superb in supporting roles.
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